Manage your money with Mint

Written by Rick Henrikson. Posted in Productivity, Technology

Mint LogoI’m a firm believer in metrics.  I love tools that help you measure and track things as easily and accurately as possible.  This is probably one reason why I’m so interested in inexpensive diagnostics – to enable regular measurement of physiological changes.  But today I want to talk about measuring money.

People have tried preparing budgets and tracking spending all kinds of ways, ranging from simple spreadsheets to institution-specific tools to expensive software.  There are at least three big issues with these solutions:

  1. Too much effort | You really just don’t have the time to manually enter all of your purchases, and to update budgets and goals in a manual fashion over time.  At best you start off sticking to it but gradually slack off and give up.
  2. Not enough metrics | These methods generally aren’t very good for organizing purchases and making sure you’re sticking with goals for specific spending categories.  This is critical for sifting through the junk to get relevant information.
  3. Too isolated | These tools tend to sit in a box somewhere.  Most likely on your hard drive, though maybe in the cloud if you’re using Google Docs.  You would really want something that you could access anywhere, and that could send you relevant notifications related to your spending and upcoming bills.

This is where Mint comes in.  I’ve been using it for almost 3 years now (since they started their beta back in the summer of 2007), and I’ve been thoroughly impressed with the features and reliability they offer for tracking your finances.  All you do is input the login information you use for each of your online accounts and Mint will automatically import and categorize all of your monthly data in a clean and intuitive interface.  Here are some of the best features:

  • It puts everything in one place | No more searching for specific purchases on a clunky bank website only to find you can’t actually see more than the past 6 months.  Mint keeps all of your transaction histories in one place, with simple search and auto-tagging.  It’s really amazing how comprehensive it is.  I’ve got bank accounts, credit cards, student loans, and an auto loan all in there.  If you happen to have a positive net worth, you can even track all those investments you have.
  • It’s automatic | Mint is generally about 90% accurate in categorizing my transactions, making it really simple for me to get a quick look at exactly how much I spend on any particular category in a given time period (for example, how much was spent on fast food over the past year).
  • It keeps you in the know | The primary concern I hear is mistrust in a startup to hold their financial information.  However, I think Mint increases your security by notifying you of anything fishy going on in your finances.  You can set all kinds of alerts based on spending and account balance thresholds, and Mint will let you know by SMS or email if anything unusual happens (still waiting for an Android app, though).
  • It helps you budget | The budgeting tools help you keep track of your spending during the month, notifying you if money is disappearing faster than it should.  This has helped me scale back spending when necessary.
  • It identifies trends | Mint offers some very appealing charts to help visualize your spending by category.  This way you can tighten your spending a little in areas that are hurting you most.  It also helped me identify a relatively small, but regularly recurring, withdrawal from my account that should have been canceled.  I was able to immediately contact the offending company and straighten things out.

For those of you who are concerned about leaving all your financial information in the hands of a startup, it should comfort you a little to know that they’ve been secure for the past 3 years of operation, and were even recently acquired by Intuit, a well-established financial software company.  There are tons of reasons to love Mint, and it still surprises me how many of my friends haven’t even heard of it yet.  Now you don’t have ignorance as an excuse.  Go sign up!

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The Livescribe Pulse – A sweet pen you should probably get

Written by Rick Henrikson. Posted in Productivity, Technology

Any sufficiently advanced piece of technology makes you look like a badass around friends.  iPhones were cool when they first came out.  Everyone wanted to touch the screen and play that stupid teetering ball game.  The same thing will probably happen with the latest unnecessarily large iteration of the iPhone.  But you really only get a few weeks of drool-inducing awesomeness.  A month, tops.  But I’ve had my Livescribe Pulse pen for almost a year now, and it still makes me a badass around almost anyone I show it to.  Now I’d like to show it to you.

The Pulse

The Pulse pen (made by Livescribe, just a stone’s throw away in Oakland), is basically a digital audio recorder that also syncs that audio with any text you happen to be writing at the time.  Even further, the pen knows exactly where you are pointing on any given page, which enables all sorts of cool features that might not be obvious at first.  So let’s go into this a little more.

The Problem(s)

New devices don’t always have to solve existing problems, but they should at a minimum introduce you to a problem you never knew you had to begin with.  The Pulse solves several existing and new problems:

  • Taking notes: It sucks when you’re jotting down notes on something but can’t quite write fast enough to keep up.  You miss some critical information and fall helplessly behind.  Problem solved.
  • Actually using your notes: Ok, so you have a bunch of notebooks filled with tons of valuable information.  Now how do you access all those little bits?  Not so easy.  In an ideal world, you have everything uber-organized with a rainbow of plastic stickers.  In the real world, it’s a mess of spiral notebooks and you really aren’t going to be able to find that reference you’re looking for.  Problem solved.
  • Sharing your notes: Yes, it would be nice to have all your notes in Google Docs.  But sometimes it’s just not convenient or possible to use a computer.  So then you have to resort to photocopies.  Even if you do have the notes digitized, you’re probably lacking the original audio that could prove relevant. Problem solved.
  • Doing cool stuff in your notebook: This falls more into the category of problems you didn’t really know you had.  But what if you could touch a word and hear its translation into another language?  Or write a calculation and get an instant answer wherever you are on the page?  Or draw interactive elements on the page (like a piano)?  Problem preemptively solved.

How it Works

The Pulse pen fundamentally has two sensors: one to record its position on special “dot paper”, and another to record audio.  Both are incredibly sensitive and accurate, producing amazing results.  The pen uses a high speed infrared camera positioned right below the ink stick to capture images of what the ink is touching.  Livescribe has developed an incredibly large pattern of microscopic dots that are uniquely positioned so that a small look can tell you exactly where you are in the pattern.  This pattern was then cut up into pages and distributed into notebooks.  There are 4 spiral notebooks and 4 bound notebooks.  So when I take notes in Notebook 1, the pen knows exactly where I am and records all of my strokes.

Beyond just recording where I am, the pen can perform an action at a given location based on its internal map of objects drawn on the page.  The coolest example of this is definitely the piano.  It’s just something you have to see.

Docking the pen to your computer via USB will automatically transfer new notes and recordings to the Livescribe Desktop application.  The process is fairly simple and intuitive, though there were some bugs resulting from the release of the latest 2.0 software that have mostly been fixed now.  The notes are then indexed using some incredible OCR algorithms, allowing pretty reliable search, even with chicken scratch like mine.  The desktop application also interfaces directly with Livescribe Online, where you can upload “pencasts” (audio/text recordings) for public or private sharing.

The Features, The Features, What-What the Features!

Just to summarize the main features of the Pulse pen and associated software:

  • Synced recording of audio and text | Enables chronological review of lectures according to your notes, and filling in any information you might not have been quick enough to jot down the first time around.
  • Audio playback | In the notebook, you can touch any writing on the page and automatically play the audio that was recorded when it was being written.  Once uploaded into the software, you can do the same thing by clicking with the mouse, only now you’ll actually be able to see the text being written as the audio plays.
  • Indexing and powerful search | Livescribe is able to index all of your written words with high fidelity, providing a single search box through which you can look up any notes you’ve taken in the past.  Third party apps could potentially index the audio, too.  So now all of your notes will be at your fingertips.
  • Sharing and export | You can easily upload pencasts to the Livescribe website, marking them as public or just sharing them privately by email.  Your friends can then view the pencast right in their browser, or just download a pdf of the notes.  Registered users get 500MB of free space.  All notes can be exported to pdf and audio can be exported to AAC, MP4, or WAV. You can even embed the pencasts (try opening it in full-screen and clicking anywhere on the text to skip through the talk):
  • Durable pen | I’ve been carrying it around in my pocket daily and still haven’t been able to break it.
  • Long battery life | The battery lasts an extremely long time (I can record hours of text/audio on a single charge without getting near drained).  They officially say it can record 5 hours of text & audio, or 6+ hours of just audio & 12+ hours of just text.
  • Plenty of space | The data itself doesn’t seem to take up very much room.  I only have a 1GB pen (they also have 2GB and 4GB version), but that’s been plenty for all of the notes and recordings I have made in all of my notebooks over the past year.  I’m only using about half my space so far.  And you can always “archive” your notes, removing them from the pen (but leaving them in your desktop software).
  • Inexpensive media | The notebooks run ~$5 each for 200-page spiral notebooks or ~$12 each for smaller 200-page notebooks that are bound like moleskine books (they’re really nicely made for the cost).  The pens are also really affordable at just around $150.
  • The App Store | Currently in beta, this is perhaps one of the most compelling features of the Livescribe platform.  The desktop software has an integrated app store through which you can download programs to your pen.  These programs can be associated with special printouts (like a balance sheet or a survey), or they can just work on their own with any piece of dot paper.  Some example applications include a language translator, a digital text converter, and a chemical structure recognition tool.  You could imagine a lot of other interesting applications that could pay off big for developers.

Cool Things to do With It

I really think the Livescribe pen is a valuable tool for almost everyone I know.  If you ever have meetings, classes, or work that requires written documentation, you should probably get one.  Here are the main cases I’ve used it for:

  • Meetings | It’s great having this pen to keep track of everything that goes down at any meeting I’m in.  This makes it super easy to share what happened with people who couldn’t make it, or to give notes to people practicing a presentation (they can hear what they said, along with your feedback).  It also helps with accountability – you have an easily searchable record of what everyone said, so it certainly clarifies any later disputes.
  • Talks/Classes/Conferences | I guess meetings are kind of a specific instance of this “Talks” category, with the added purpose of documenting decisions.  But the other stuff applies more generally (sharing notes with people afterwards, easily searching through them later).  And if you can’t make it to a talk, you can just loan someone your pen and ask them to take notes just like they normally would – and you magically get a set of notes synced to the entire audio of the talk.
  • Work/Lab Notebook | I’ll discuss this in a bit more detail later, but I think the Livescribe platform is really awesome for lab notebooks.  I currently use a modified Livescribe notebook for all of my lab work, and it makes it incredibly easy to search for any past protocol or reagent I may have used.  It’s also really easy to share those protocols with colleagues.  And I think it’s more reliable for authentication purposes (and could be even more so if someone develops a digital signature authentication app).  On top of all that, I’ll be able to take an electronic copy of my notebook with me when I finish, so I won’t have to decide between photocopier hell and losing everything I’ve done.

The Competition

The primary competitor to Livescribe is the Adapx Capturx (pronounced “Captures”) pen.  One of the reasons it took me so long to get a Pulse is that I was waiting to see who would come out on top.  The key differences I’ve noted are:

  • Livescribe has its own desktop app | Whereas Capturx integrates into Microsoft Office OneNote.  This is good and bad.  It would be nice to just integrate with an accepted standard like OneNote.  However, I’ve played around with OneNote a lot and I still don’t feel like it’s ready to be my primary notebook.  Additionally, I’ve read that the OneNote OCR does not perform as well as Livescribe’s custom algorithms.  Also, the desktop software enables a lot of other cool things, like synced audio/text playback and simple upload and sharing.
  • Capturx lets you print paper with forms on it | This is pretty cool.  You can print out a spreadsheet, for example, and then write numbers in it with the pen.  Then, when you open that sheet on your computer, the numbers will automatically appear in a real excel spreadsheet (rather than just the image you would get with Livescribe).  However, this type of service is definitely in the lineup for Livescribe, and wasn’t a big enough deal to sway me.
  • Livescribe has an app store | This was definitely one of the key factors in my decision.  The Livescribe pen has a lot of potential as a new platform that can be unlocked with active development.  I’m excited to see what comes out.  Though I suppose this does mean we’ll have to deal with some farting apps.

Overall, Capturx is more geared towards industrial uses and it’s not even available for direct purchase (you have to email a sales associate).  Livescribe, on the other hand, has firmly placed its bet on education.  Their pens target students for the most part, but I could see them getting picked up by others as interesting applications are developed.  Unless you run a large company and are looking to automate some data entry for a bunch of employees, you want to go with the Livescribe Pulse.

The other obvious competition will come from the onslaught of tablet computers.  I originally thought a tablet computer would be ideal for my purposes.  However, I have found it much more convenient to just use this pen and paper, particularly in situations where it would be inconvenient or impossible to use a computer.  It’s also much more informal and quick, without buggy software to deal with, making it perfect for meetings and lab work.

Room for Improvement

While I’ve been very happy with my Pulse pen (and I’ve even purchased one for my undergraduate researcher), it definitely has some issues.  The pens could be made a bit smaller and have less Jetsonian appearance.  The search component could be made a bit quicker and cleaner to navigate results.  It would also be nice for paper printing to be a bit easier.  I spent about half an hour at Staples trying to print some paper but eventually gave up (though the employee was super impressed with the pen and couldn’t believe these things were sold in Target right now).  It would also be nice to have more options for notebooks (I ended up jerry-rigging a solution for my lab notebook, which I’ll talk about more in a later post).  It would also be really cool to get some kind of video integration (like a companion camera that would sync the video with the audio and text taken by the pen).

Overall, it’s been a worthwhile purchase and I’d recommend it to any of my friends.  I gave a demo to my advisor and he immediately offered to buy one for everyone in our lab.  My parents were super impressed and are getting my sister one for her birthday (mainly to help with school).  You can also buy it most anywhere (Amazon, Target, Staples, Best Buy, Apple Stores, and direct from Livescribe).  It’s worth comparing because there are occasional discounts (10-20% off, or a free set of notebooks, worth $20).

Full disclosure: Like all of these companies I love, I don’t get any money directly from Livescribe, nor indirectly through their success…but I wish I did!

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Stuck in Android Limbo

Written by Rick Henrikson. Posted in Commentary, Technology

Android is BetterI spent over two years using a fat clamshell phone with glittery rainbow and penguin stickers on it.  This would not be surprising if I was a 14 year old girl.  But I was that girl’s older brother. Aside from the stickers and clunky interface, the phone only had space for approximately 5 text messages (making me constantly have to delete messages to get new ones). However, the camera seemed to miraculously circumvent this limitation, as evidenced by at least 200 dark photos taken of the inside of my pocket.

The reason I subjected myself to this is not for some kind of comedic irony (as a known technophile, regularly comparing my Ericcson brick phone with the circle of iPhones I am generally surrounded with), but rather because I just didn’t see any phones come out during those two and a half years that were worth investing in.  And I’m not just talking about a financial investment (though that is significant as well).  There are also mental and temporal investments.  I have to learn how the phone works, get used to its strengths and flaws, and set everything up just how I want it.  On top of that, I have to invest time learning which apps are best and getting them to work properly.  And up until recently, I didn’t see any phone that was worth the money and effort for me.

The Rise of Android

Android Cake

My labmates seemed to think this was the most appropriate message for my birthday cake. Clearly they know me very well.

So what changed?  Google launched a mobile operating system.  This was a game-changer for me.  Before getting into why Google’s phone OS is awesome, let me just take a moment to clarify just what Android is and isn’t (you can skip this if you know more about technology than 80% of my friends apparently do):

  • Android is an operating system, like Windows or OS X on computers, but designed specifically for use on small devices (such as phones or even microwaves).  It will probably be turning up on a lot more devices in the near future.
  • Android is open source, meaning anyone can download the full source code and modify it for free.  This makes it attractive for hardware manufacturers as it increases their overall margins on a device.  This is comparable to what is happening with open source operating systems on computers (like Ubuntu or Google’s Chrome OS).  However, while computer operating systems have been developed for decades, advanced smart phone operating systems are still at the nascent stages of design and features offerings.  It’s thus much easier for an open source alternative to actually compete and grab market share from established systems much faster (people aren’t as committed to phone operating systems as many are to Windows, for example).
  • Android is not a phone made by Motorola and sold by Verizon.  The Droid phone runs the Android operating system, but the phone itself is not made by Google.  An analogy would be a computer (phone) made by Dell (Motorola) that runs the Windows (Android) operating system.

Ok so now we’re on the same page.  But why is Android so awesome?  In my opinion, Android kicks ass because:

  1. It’s open | This has a few advantages.  First, it’s free (ultimately reducing the bottom line on phones).  But beyond that, it is able to grow with fairly rapid development cycles.  Additionally, third party software is not regulated like it is on some fascist phones, leading to more creative and compelling applications.  Shady policies surrounding software moderation are even driving developers to quit the iPhone.
  2. It unifies my phone-to-phone experience | It used to be that the only thing you cared about carrying over from one phone to the next was your contacts (and even this wasn’t a given – hence the many requests you see from people who have suddenly lost their address books).  But now you’d like to switch to a new phone and be able to easily port your contacts, photos, text messages, applications, and other settings.  If you lock yourself into a walled operating system and at some point you want to move to a cooler phone with a different OS, you’re basically out of luck.  But since Android is being implemented on tons of phones now, from every carrier, you can readily jump from handset to handset while preserving your basic user experience and data.  Google even plans to integrate a settings backup/restore feature to be implemented in the near future.
  3. It’s backed by Google | And Google is awesome.  They encourage optimal user experience in an array of applications.  Almost every important application I use these days is improved by Google’s forward-thinking designs.  And although some people are concerned about Google owning too much of our digital lives, I personally believe Google doesn’t intend to do any evil, and they’ve made some good strides for openness and data portability.  Google is definitely in a strong position to revolutionize the mobile phone industry.
  4. It is well-designed | Sure, some of it is just eye candy, but the Android interfaces are really aesthetically pleasing and generally intuitive to manipulate.  It also facilitates an unprecedented amount of customization of user experience.  It’s an efficient and enjoyable OS to interact with.

The Perfect Storm

Yet, even with all of the clear benefits of moving towards an Android operating system, I passed on the earlier iterations of the G1 and MyTouch.  It wasn’t until the HTC Hero launched that I was finally ready to make my investment.

The launch of the Hero was regarded by many as the first real competition for the iPhone in terms of performance and functionality.  While previous Android phones were still a bit buggy and suffered from issues with battery life, speed, and basic functionality as a phone, HTC really built an excellent phone here.  This phone also marked the introduction of HTC’s Sense UI, which is basically a modification of the Android OS to improve the user experience with some additional customization options.  All in all, the hardware was finally there.

On top of this, I was surprised to find how appealing the actual carrier was in this instance.  The Hero was the first Android phone launched on the Sprint network in the US.  I had always used AT&T as my carrier (except for the brief period when it became Cingular and then eventually reverted back).  And Sprint was actually really cheap!  From some basic searching online, I discovered Sprint will give a discount to pretty much anyone with an organization email address.  You just enter your email address at this site and they’ll send you a link to your “Private Sprint Store”.  The specific rates vary, but for Berkeley this amounted to a 20% discount on plans!  So this made the $69.99 unlimited plan (unlimited calls to any phone, unlimited data, and unlimited texts) just $56/month (about half what it would cost to get a similar plan with AT&T or Verizon).  On top of that, I’ve anecdotally found the Sprint network to be really dependable in the areas where I’ve used it (Berkeley, San Francisco, Boston, Maryland, DC), and I seem to get better coverage than I used to with AT&T.  So this helped push me over the edge with the Hero.

The Downside

So it’s about time I get to the title of this post.  There are a few issues I’ve run into with this phone, but perhaps the most significant one is that of OS branching.  Basically, since Android is open source, third parties can modify the core code that Google originally wrote to add specific functionality.  This is like particular distributions of Linux that are modified to function/look a certain way (such as Ubuntu).  In fact, Android itself is a particular distribution of the Linux kernel.  So in the case of the Hero, HTC has modified the core Android code to implement it’s “Sense” UI.  This has likely improved the user experience, though I haven’t played with other android phones (but I have friends using the Motorola Droid who seem to like my phone better specifically because of this UI enhancement).  The downside is that now I have a very special version of Android that has to be specially modified any time there are core upgrades to the Android OS (which have been coming rather frequently with the a new version seemingly released with each new phone).

When I got the Hero, the most up-to-date version of Android was 1.5 (also known as Cupcake, in Google’s line of dessert-inspired names).  It was very quickly upgraded to 1.6 (Donut), but I wasn’t able to make this upgrade on my phone because of the modifications HTC made to the OS (without rooting my phone, voiding warranties, etc.).  Sprint announced an upcoming upgrade to 1.6, but then the Droid came out with 2.0 and the timeline for release has gradually moved back to the point where Spring has now said we’ll skip 1.6 and jump straight to 2.1, sometime in the first half of 2010.  That could be June.  And by then, 2.5 or 3.0 might be released.  So the upgrade cycle definitely lags thanks to OS branching.

Hopefully these sorts of delays will be reduced by adjustments to the core Android platform in the future (and as more phones offer the “full” Google experience), but for now you just have to be satisfied with the phone as it is when you buy it, knowing its OS could be obsolete in a matter of weeks.  And I’m definitely satisfied with my Hero, so Android limbo isn’t so bad afterall.

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The Future of Education

Written by Rick Henrikson. Posted in Commentary, Productivity, Society, Technology

Robot TeacherThe most depressing class I ever took was freshman intro chemistry.  Granted, it was advanced intro chemistry (oxymoronic, but that’s how the course identifications work at MIT; extra numbers = harder, extra letters = easier).  So this was 5.112 (as opposed to the standard introductory 5.111).  So why was it so depressing?  I had learned the majority of this stuff already in my high school AP Chemistry course.  I had actually done rather well in the chemistry class, finding most of the material to be quite manageable and I scored as well as you can on the AP exam.  That’s obviously not the depressing part, though.

The sad part came when I realized I had forgotten a significant amount of the material I had mastered only a couple of years earlier.  Moreover, I was finding the material even harder the second time around.  This made me come to two harsh realizations:

  1. My high school instruction was better than the equivalent MIT instruction for this particular course.
  2. I can forget something pretty quickly, particularly if I’m not using it regularly.

This really marked a turning point in my education.  For the first time, I felt the frustration of viewing previously familiar material with virgin eyes.  Realizing how short-lived any particular piece of knowledge could be, I decided I would no longer sweat the small stuff.  I didn’t kill myself memorizing and practicing things that I didn’t find interesting or relevant for my near-term future.  I grabbed the big picture, and delved in deeper just where I felt like it.  As a result, MIT was a very pleasant experience for me.  Unlike my indiscriminately intense study habits in high school, I decided to focus on just the parts I cared about, knowing that I’d have to relearn anything that I needed to actually use in the real world.

This obviously is not efficient.  Both the impersonal method of instruction, and the (effectively nonexistent) means of knowledge retention in the current system leave quite a bit to be desired.  So what will education look like in the future?

Education will be Personal

This is what we were all told in third grade while taking those silly tests to determine our learning style.  I probably leaned more towards the visual/reading side of things, and secretly questioned the validity of “kinesthetic” learning, but it didn’t really matter anyway.  These tests never had a real impact on anyone’s academic pursuits.  Education is still done one batch at a time, with everyone receiving the same content.  At best, some instructors mix teaching styles with some overlap in order to bring as many students along as possible (link), perhaps incorporating hands-on experiments, group discussions, and visual effects into a standard lecture.  But this isn’t the ideal solution.  When I say personal, I mean really personal.

Every student brings two wild cards to the education table: their learning style, and their current knowledge.  Now those are some pretty huge frickin’ variables, and I’d argue the latter is most important.  Yet, students are all presented with the exact same material within a given batch, at best receiving some sort of “refresher” or “catch-up” material.  This can’t possibly fill all of the cracks.  So you end up with a good percentage of students trying to learn new material on a foundations that is full of gaps.  Not the best structural engineering approach.  Especially considering you can’t really teach someone anything unless they almost already know it (forgot who said this – anyone know?).

Learning is incremental and it’s nearly impossible to really grasp new material before fully understanding the concepts preceding it.  This is partially why I much prefer to read a whole textbook from cover to cover rather than receive whatever bits and pieces my teacher chooses are important enough to cram into an artificially-imposed academic calendar.  Courses need to be personal not just to the student, but also to the material.  Students should accomplish work at their own pace, with recommended windows for milestone completion to help motivate them along.  The key is to always be progressing and retaining what you are learning, not necessarily to move faster than everyone else.  Regular assessment of understanding would be integral, allowing students to review any modular subjects they might be lacking.

As an intermediate step, video lectures will become much more popular, and we’ll eventually see the “best” Physics 1 lectures rise to the top.  This is already happening, with recent studies showing that 82% of students at University of Wisconsin-Madison would rather watch video lectures, with 60% saying they would even be willing to pay for those lectures.  Their reasons generally were linked to a more personal experience (watching lectures “on-demand”, making up for missed lectures, etc.)  But eventually, the standard lecture format will have to give way to more interactive media that tests and reinforces throughout the teaching process.

Interactive Learning will Take Over

While working at Lawrence Livermore National Labs, I took a few online training courses that involved interactive material.  The interfaces definitely weren’t ideal, but they were a step in the right direction.  Users were presented with flash-based tutorials followed by simple quizzes to reinforce key topics, with some navigation controls to help with reviewing material that was not adequately retained.

Imagine how much further this could be pushed.  You could open up a video of a lecturer speaking, with interactive tutorial elements playing on the side.  These could be standard graphs, figures, and videos, or more complex boxes taking in user inputs to produce simple visualizations that explain a concept much better than the waving of a hand or the scratching of chalk.  MIT has some of this kind of content associated with their courses, but it’s definitely not as well-integrated into individual curricula as it should be.  It’s fairly clunky to have to go back and search through a list of visualizations when you’re first learning (or subsequently reviewing) a topic.

So now you have a student immersed in an interactive lesson, maybe even taking advantage of some new Minority Report-style interface tools being developed by a few companies.  Throughout the process, students can be prompted with questions to confirm they are grasping a concept before moving onto the next one.  In large lectures, this doesn’t happen.  If you get lost somewhere, you remain in the dark for the rest of your miserable time there.  You could ask a question, but that’s a fairly inefficient solution in a large room of students where many people are not lost.  But with gradual questions integrated throughout the process, it’s easy to identify any stumbling points.  The software could even be smart enough to break a question down into component concepts, asking a second series of questions, and a third, and a fourth, and so on, until the root problem area is identified.  The student can then review that area until he or she is ready to return to the work at hand.  That’s real no child left behind.

Obviously there are some subjects that are more readily amenable to this new education platform.  Mathematics, language, and the sciences are all excellent candidates.  Some components of humanities education could also be addressed, with some modification.  Writing might use peer-based editing and assessment (much like many writer groups that are being formed online today).  Artistic and physical instruction can also be addressed with a range of new input devices.  The Wii is great for a lot of things, and there’s finally an educational game for guitar hero with an actual guitar.  These kinds of devices could eventually be integrated into a complete, interactive learning environment that is much more personalized than anything that could be offered in batch classroom settings.

Optimized Review will be Critical

A number of studies have emphasized the value of spaced repetition for memory retention.  The basic idea is that, after you’ve learned something it is very easy to remember upon review the next day.  Then, as time goes on, it becomes harder and harder to remember until you have no clue what it was anymore.  It turns out it’s probably optimal to review this material right before you’re about to forget it.  With spaced repetition, you review the concept at optimally-designed intervals to make sure you never forget the concept, with minimal time expenditure.  A number of companies have been developing software to help push spaced repetition, but it has mostly been limited to desktop applications with flashcard-style learning (great for language, but sub-optimal for most other things).  Smart.fm has received quite a bit of press lately for applying these strategies in a simple, web-based platform.

The successful integration of optimized review right into the learning process will have a huge impact on education, helping students to actually remember most of what they’ve been taught, and saving all of the wasted time catching everyone up at the beginning of every new semester.

It will be Cheap and Ubiquitous

Right now I’ve got a phone in my pocket that is more powerful than the average computer was a few years ago.  And on that phone I have access to millions of bits of absolutely free information, anytime and (almost) anywhere.

Of course many people rely on Wikipedia as the trusted source for a first go, but expert-produced content is making its way into the free space.  There are a number of sources for free video lectures, including my personal favorite.  An MIT alumnus has even started a Youtube channel that offers comprehensive instructional videos on everything from chemistry to differential equations to banking (1000+ videos!, thanks for pointing it out, Jamie).  And recently, open source textbooks have gained some momentum with Flat World Knowledge and Wikibooks.  Our very own Governator even pushed an initiative this year to get open source textbooks in high school classrooms throughout California, with the hope of ensuring high-quality and affordable education for everyone.

Ultimately, I believe educational content will become extremely cheap or free.  But I don’t just mean video lectures and textbooks.  I’m talking about entire educational programs with web-based content that’s optimized to improve students’ learning.  Initial investments developing these programs will pay off as they drastically reduce many other economic burdens imposed by the traditional education industry.

And being web-based, these tools will be available to everyone with an internet connection, a number that is continuing to grow.  Phones could even be used for rapid review of appropriate content.  You could run through some vocab or quick math problems while waiting in line.  And it could even become addictive if presented in a game format.  The popularity of educational games on devices such as the Nintendo DS demonstrates that people are both willing and eager to apply their brains to constructive problems in gaming environments.  So education will be cheap, everywhere, and addictive.

But Classrooms Still Have a Place

Moving to an entirely digital education would obviously have some terrible repercussions for social development.  From the beginning of my time at MIT, I realized the reason the place was special wasn’t because of any fancy machines or brilliant lectures.  It was special because of the connections you could make with some really amazing people.  They used to say that at MIT there are three things that take up your time: Sleep, Social, and Study.  You can only choose two.  Anyone in my freshman dorm can tell you that Social ranked pretty highly for me, with Sleep taking a bit of  a back seat.

Although some peer discussion could take place online, students will need actual human interaction to prepare them for the inherently collaborative nature of modern working environments.  That’s why these tools would largely have to be an enabling supplement for higher-level discussions and projects in a classroom setting.  Students could complete 80% of the learning on their own, with teachers and parents monitoring their progress via web interfaces.  Then they could go to class knowing they have something substantial to contribute to bigger, more integrative goals.

So when do I get my robo teacher?

I’ve primarily been discussing ideal education systems for the future, but what’s practical in my lifetime?  The biggest issues may lie in the fact that education is a huge industry.  And like any huge industry, it has a lot of inertia that will take time to adjust.  AcademHack has a great video presenting the issues our outdated “knowledge creation and dissemination” system will face in a modern, connected world.  There are going to be some tough growing pains, much like we’ve seen with the recording industry, the film industry, television networks, and publishers.  But clearly a lot of changes have to be made to reach an optimal system.

These tools will likely be implemented on a more individual basis in the near-future, as supplements to traditional schooling.  However, it’s clear that our nation is moving towards efficiency by technology and personalization.  We’ve been trying to get away from batchucation (coining a term – education in batches), and we finally have the web-based tools to make it happen.  I’m excited to start using some of them to finally refresh all of the material I’ve inevitably forgotten.

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Google has a problem with DNA analysis

Written by Rick Henrikson. Posted in Science, Technology

About a year ago, my roommate started a little DNA analysis journal club here at Berkeley. It was just meant to be a group of like-minded students discussing recent advances in analytical DNA technologies.  He tried creating a Google group for that club, not expecting the fairly judgmental response he received…

Note that Google’s skilled text parser caught our hidden innuendo:

This group name is not suitable.  You cannot include the text “anal” in the group name.

This is particularly amusing considering Google’s close ties with a certain consumer genetics company in the bay area.  We ended up going with “DNA Journal Group” instead.  Thanks for keeping it clean, Google!

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